"What were they thinking?" It's the phrase all truly innovative thinkers hear a lot when they launch their ideas. But it's also what we say when those ideas fall flat. And unfortunately in business, there usually isn't a shortcut to know the outcome before taking the risk.
For example, In 2016, Microsoft introduced TayTweets, an artificial intelligence Twitter bot. In less than a day, Tay kept spewing vile, discriminatory statements; they had no choice but to shut it down. It seemed like a great idea--at first--until it wasn't.
Being wrong and realizing you're wrong are two different steps.
In her TED Talk, Kathryn Schulz draws an analogy with the Looney Tunes character Wile E. Coyote. He's chasing after a roadrunner until they're off the edge of a cliff. Now the roadrunner is a bird, so it can fly. However, the coyote keeps running on thin air until it realizes its mistake and falls down.
"When we're wrong about something, not when we realize it but before that we're like that coyote after he goes off the cliff but before he looks down. We're already wrong. We're already in trouble, but we feel like we're on solid ground," Kathryn says.
What can businesses do when their blind spots catch up to them, or when what started out as an innovative idea becomes a disaster?
1. Create a crisis toolkit beforehand
The best time to arm yourself with the right tools is before calamity strikes. That's why there are extinguishers in every building even when there's no fire. That's why there are evacuation exits.
If you're in the middle of a PR disaster, there's a narrow window for action. The longer you take to respond the greater the danger someone else (or many irate someone elses) will be telling your story for you. Even if you don't have the answers right now, the public wants to hear you're looking into it.
Understand that your ideal clients and prospects want to feel heard and acknowledged, so having a statement pre-prepared that can be sent out within 15 minutes of a disaster can save you both time and mental bandwidth to deal with the crisis at hand.
2. Take control by being wrong gracefully
Nobody wants to be wrong. It triggers all sorts of vulnerabilities and insecurities. But it's a crucial part of running a business and learning how to be wrong gracefully is a skill as crucial as martial artists learning to fall without hurting themselves.
Focus on what you know is true.
Here's a template: "Our goal is always to provide the best customer experience possible and we acknowledge that in this situation, there has been a disconnect from that. More than anything, we want our customers to feel (insert emotions associated with your brand) and we're working hard behind the scenes to right the situation. Please check back in for updates."
3. Nothing is off the record
Journalists and influencers, for the most part, are there to do one thing: Tell a story.
They know there are several vantage points, so they seek out different angles. They typically try to present the story from various angles. Used wisely, it can be your opportunity to redeem your reputation.
However, when you deal with interviews unprepared, you're more likely to fumble through your words and get flustered. Which makes you more likely to make an emotional declaration expressing frustration or guilt that's damaging to your brand.
Note that everything you say can be quoted. When in doubt, assume nothing is off-record. Aside from that, some questions are traps, so don't take the bait! Feel free to say something like, "I hear you asking (repeat inflammatory question), but the real question we should all be asking is (insert your pre-prepared sound byte)."
4. Talk to your team
Too many companies focus on training their top level executives and leave themselves vulnerable when low-level, customer-facing employees panic during a crisis. You may hire the best spokesperson in the world, but if the rest of your team leaks sensitive information, you're going to be caught with your proverbial pants around your ankles.
All teams should have some basic training on what to do when a situation spins out of control. They should have some pre-prepared sound bytes they can default to (similar to the template above) where they focus on company values while acknowledging the fact that things aren't going according to plan. Empowering low level staff to react in compassionate and thoughtful ways can go a long way towards deflecting or minimizing a crisis.
5. Reclaim trust
Public relations isn't a linear process. It's a cycle. Once you've resolved the problem, you don't automatically gain back the public's trust. But you can hasten the process and even deepen trust if you're willing to be vulnerable.
Publish videos, blog posts and tweets on lessons learned. On policies that you've changed. On advocacy or charity work that your company has been inspired to jump into as a result of the crisis.
We're all evolving. And if you can put a human face on your business's evolution, you're in a much more powerful position to bounce back from a crisis. Just as many couples become closer after a fight, your company can become even closer to your ideal clients if you respond to a crisis with compassion, integrity and a plan for change.